At twenty-one Michelangelo was in Rome trying to scare up commissions. Didn’t anybody want a pretty statue? A cardinal had invited him to live in his palace but then just let Michelangelo sit. No work. If it hadn’t been for the cardinal’s barber…..
Picture the barber as a big simpatico man, perhaps with a huge mustache and a frown. He had been a painter before coming to the cardinal´s household. Of all the people there he was probably the one who most loved sculpture and painting—maybe the only one who truly loved them. And he spotted Michelangelo´s superiority at once. The barber had been trained as a painter but he was unable to draw well, which was probably the reason why, heartbroken, he had had to give up painting and start cutting hair and shaving lords. He asked his friend Michelangelo if he would make a drawing for him. “I can paint like the angels,” he swore to him. “But I need a good drawing to copy. My master never had the time to teach me design,” he said with his eyes down, for he knew that wasn´t the reason he couldn´t do it. “I never saw anyone who could draw as well as you. If you could make me a sketch—just a sketch—I would get out of this barbershop right now and paint the most beautiful panel in Rome. I´m friends with the monks at San Pietro in Montorio and they´ve been after me for more than a year to do a St. Francis for one of their chapels. If they like your drawing and give me the commission, I´ll split the money with you.”
Michelangelo liked that deep barber and made the drawing for him, a St. Francis receiving the stigmata, which the barber did indeed paint in the famous church for the monks.
Michelangelo’s drawing, as well as the painting by the barber, have been lost. Here is Peter Paul Rubens’ version of the same subject. Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata (1633)
Oil on canvas 265.5 × 193 cm (104.53 × 75.98 in)
Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent
He was enormously proud of his work but just as proudly told everyone that the real master, the draughtsman for the panel, was Michelangelo Buonarroti. And that panel and the barber’s hornblowing was what got Michelangelo a commission from a “Roman gentleman” for two big statues in marble—a Cupid and a Bacchus.
This story comes from Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Michelangelo.